Few Thoughts on Upcoming Academy Awards (Oscar): On Films and Directors

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Beasts of the Southern Wild directed by Benh Zeitlin, nominee in four categories

Next Sunday, on 24. of February, we are about to watch the 85th edition of Academy Awards. Having seen all the nominees in the category of Best Picture and Best Director I took the liberty of putting together my line-up from worst to best, among the ones offered.

09. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow

08. Life of Pi, Ang Lee (also Best Director)

07. Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (also Best Director)

06. Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell (also Best Director)

05. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino (also Best Director)

04. Les Miserables, Tom Hooper

03. Argo, Ben Affleck

02. Amour, Michael Haneke (also Best Director)

01. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (also Best Director)

I wouldn’t say this is the worst Academy Award year, ever. God knows we have seen worse, and for that matter, not even so long ago. 82nd Academy Awards (Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Blind Side, Up in the Air etc.) must be one of the worst editions in the history of Oscars. But anyways, this year we are presented with nine films instead of, as of recently, the regular ten (thanks to, now famous, The Dark Knight fallacy). Alex Billington, who runs The First Showing, explained to me how the Academy actually reserves the right to choose from five to ten nominees for Best Picture depending on the films and number of votes. Therefore, the number ten is apparently not set in stone. However, I find the choice of snubbing The Master (2012) a deliberate and premeditated one. Furthermore, choosing the number 9 instead of a 10 I read as a direct message from the Academy to PTA. Oh well,  dear Paul Thomas Anderson, it seems that you are not welcome this year, for the reasons obvious and so be it. The truth is rather simple; The Master cannot even compete in this category not because it is not as good but because it is better, by far. In few years from now, The Master will be the classic and we will forget all about films like Life of Pi, Silver Linings or Argo. Quality is what matters the most, in the long run.

DIVISION

Upon seeing all the nominees I come to realize how easily these 9 could be divided into two (or perhaps even three) groups. Beasts and Amour belong to the group I without a second thought, whilst the other seven fall into the group II. There is a big difference between these groups, a difference based solely on the quality of individual film, its story, directing, its consistency, fluidity and so forth. Beasts and Amour are just a better class of films, in every respect. I am always blamed for being too emotional when it comes to certain films, or directors but luckily (for me) this year I don’t have a reason to be emotional. First, my favorite film of the year is not nominated and second, my favorite film director made a TV series instead. Also, I am not very fond of Bigelow, Spielberg, Hooper or Affleck, yet Affleck and Hooper came before Lee and Russell whose films I always waited with anticipation and utmost excitement. And although this year they are competing with compelling stories of life, survival, madness and love, which, on the basis of the story alone should mean quality, albeit take away the basic story, films themselves are rather shorn and far less successful. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed watching both Life of Pi and Silver Linings I also cannot help but notice that these two films are in fact just plain average at best, and on top of everything, certainly not worthy of the title The Best Picture of 2012.

FEW WORDS ON SPIELBERG AND TARANTINO

On the other hand we have two names that are, at the same time, both very big and very slippery. These names are (of course): Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino. Both of these men are just brilliant filmmakers who gave so much to the film world. No one can question this. You don’t have to like them to agree with this statement for this is a proven fact and if the Jaws (1975) and Pulp Fiction (1994) were the only two films we ever got to see from Spielberg and Tarantino, well, they would still be considered great. The impact of these films was doubtlessly profound. At times I wish I would wake up and go to a video store or go online to look up for Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Kill Bill (2003) and what I would find would actually be nothing, because, in my perfect world, these films were never really made. This is how big my love for these directors is. And I am not being sarcastic. They’ve created few motion picture perfections (most notably Jaws, Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) but they’ve also made more crap than any other film director out there and therefore I equate them. Their films are slipping into the formality; they are playing with popular themes; they are creating form for the sake of form alone for the sake of form; their films are deprived of rectitude and honesty; they want to dazzle us with witty lines, grand-scale scenes, multiplicity of the characters who have nothing new or smart to say, characters caught in perpetual loops of victimization (Spielberg) or coolness (Tarantino); they lie, they pretend, they exploit…our emotions and our good nature above all.

Furthermore, Schindler’s List (1993), Munich (2005) and Saving Private Ryan are all preoccupied with the problem of remembering authentically rather than cinematically. All three historical dramas invoke frame-narratives (the Jewish ceremonies at the beginning and end of Schindler’s List, the footage of actual Jewish team, the visit of the elderly James Ryan and his family to the Normandy American Cemetery) to both remind us and try to make us paradoxically forget that what we are watching is in fact a cinematic reconstruction rather than a documentary. Spielberg is painfully aware that he is showing us fake Holocaust victims and fake World War II veterans as a way of trying to appeal our sympathies for the real victims and soldiers’ entertaining us with what is ultimately a tragic story of humanity.[1] This entails both a moral and an ontological danger. If the fake is more real than the real (and with the newest possibilities in cinema technology it is), then are we not disgracing the memory of the people whose story we want to tell? That is the moral danger. But, the ontological one is far worse: if artificially reconstructed images are better at preserving memory than any more “real” artifacts or narratives, then what does that tells us about the nature of human sympathy and in this instance isn’t it the case that memory itself (even the most sacred memory) becomes nothing more than exchange in fictional imagery?

Tarantino is, on the other hand, slipping into another extreme. Although he is remembering cinematically unlike Spielberg who is remembering authentically Tarantino’s memory is the false one. His historical event never occurred for he simply made it up and therefore the historical event that should produce some kind of emotion thus becomes a figment of his imagination conjured with few images of popular culture, leaving us all empty, dumbing us down, literally. There is nothing wrong with this experiment, however. I personally enjoyed Django and Inglourious Basterds (2009) as well as Tarantino’s game with fact and fiction BUT let’s make one thing clear, I enjoyed it only on the level of the meta-narrative. Beyond this there is nothing worthwhile. There is no story to tell, there is no true or valid problems, no moral dilemma, no questions to ask or answers to give…it is all just endless, posh, cool, cooler and the coolest images of them all coming one after the other with, in the case of Django, no backbone to hold the first and the second half of the film, which, like in Silver Linings seemed as if it was done by two very different people or one who is unable to tell a linear story as it was perfectly pointed out by two friends of mine, Nemanja Savanović and Saša Hajduković, on a film beer we had few weeks ago. And this is the truth; Tarantino simply doesn’t have the capacity to go beyond the cool, beyond the form or the capacity to tell a linear story in a straight line, from point A to point B. Django, in all fairness, acutely suffers from this inaptitude.

The only reason why I placed it on the higher place on my list is the following: the charm it possess (evident in few fantastic scenes), costumes that could be read as a treasure map, music that simply didn’t fit and Christopher Waltz who flawlessly reprised his role of SD Colonel Hans Landa. Also, I am a sucker for the postmodern notion of intertextuality and self-reflexivity in film. But this one is on me. As to, whether Lincoln or Django Unchained deserve the title of the Best Picture, or Best Directing, my answer would have to be a categorically no; with all due respect to all the fans out there.

WHY AMOUR SHOULDN’T WIN THE TITLE OF THE BEST PICTURE

Michael Haneke’s latest achievement, aptly titled Amour, is among my favorite films that came out last year. It is not better than its predecessor, the brilliant White Ribbon (2009) but it is, as mentioned earlier in the text, a class above the rest of the Oscar nominees. The only reason why I wouldn’t like to see it win is the vast constellation of other non-English films that came out last year. The fact that Amour is nominated for both categories, the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture (English language) is a small victory of European cinema but it is also a slap in the face to some wonderful achievements like Jagten (Vinterberg), Alps (Lanhtimos), Beyond the Hills (Mungiu), Holy Motors (Carax), The Turin Horse (Tarr), Barbara (Petzold), just to name few. Amour is perhaps better. But, on the other hand, I have to ask the following question – is Amour THE ONLY non-English film worthy of the Oscar grand prix? I feel like Jagten, a brilliant Danish film, is of equal quality. But then again maybe Vinterberg never competed for the Oscar, which is a strong possibility, moreover since The Royal Affair, a weaker film by a mile, is the Danish contender for the Best Foreign Language Film this year. Anyways, in the past years only few non-English films[2] were given the chance to enter the race for the title of the Best (English) Picture, which in itself is a bit paradoxical. Yet, the Academy never claimed Best Picture is exclusively an English category. But then again, having a category titled Best Foreign Language Film would definitely imply a certain degree of separation. So what does the Best Picture imply? Best American Picture? Then Les Miserables does not qualify despite the fact the official language of the film is English. Best English language Picture? Then Amour doesn’t qualify because it is a French language Austrian picture. Best Picture of the world regardless of the country and language? Then why keep the Best Foreign Language Film category and furthermore, can we honestly say that Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables stand for the best films of the world?! Or, to rephrase it a bit and scale it down a notch: are they better films than Jagten, Alps, Beyond the Hills, Holy Motors and Turin Horse? If so, are they really?

This is the dilemma I am having in regards to Haneke’s Amour. It has the power to change things, if it didn’t already. However, the truth is, I am almost positive I am reading too much into this. Being nominated in both categories means one thing and one thing only – Amour will win the Best Foreign Language Film category, rightfully.[3] And that is all there is to it. Of course there is always a slim chance Academy will surprise us, but, in the earnest optimism, I won’t be the one holding my breath.

THE ARGO PARADOX

Ben Affleck’s Argo so far won: SAG, Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, BAFTA, Robert Egbert and AFI’s film of the year among others. The above listed events are the biggest and most important film competitions preceding the Oscars and Argo literally swept them by winning each time in both categories: Best Film (for Heslov, Affleck and Clooney) and Best Director (for Affleck). Therefore, it stands to reason that Argo is the easiest and the most obvious choice for being the ultimate winner of 85th Academy Awards. BUT, it is not. The Academy Awards members failed to nominate Affleck in the category of Best Director and this tells us the following: (1) the Academy Award members LIKED Argo but they did not LOVE it, which consequently earned Argo enough votes for the top 9 (how stupid is this number) but not enough for the top 5; (2) they loved the film but not how it was directed, which is to my mind inseparable. However, back in 2005, Ang Lee won the award for Best Director (Brokeback Mountain), yet it was Higgins’ Crash that won the award for Best Picture. The problem is, Higgins was also nominated in the category for Best Director. Me, personally, I do not understand how can someone direct the best film but not be the best director himself. My bewilderment aside, being snubbed in the second most important category is Argo‘s only deficiency.

On the other hand, Obama’s favorite and mine second favorite film of the year Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin was not nominated for Golden Globes, SAG nor BAFTA and yet it is for the Oscars and in four very important categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the smallest film this year in a sense that it is the cheapest film among the nominees (although it never looks cheap, not even for a second); it is a film début, the film director is the least experienced and the youngest of them all; the stars of the film are the 6 year old girl and a local baker, neither one professional actors, nor anyone else in this film for that matter; the music is composed by the film director; the screenplay is adapted by the film director and from the one-act play written by the film director’s childhood friend. It is beautifully written, the performances are top notch, its length is just enough, it has a Terence Malick feel to it, it is visually stunning, its directing is smart and interesting and overall, I enjoyed every 93 minutes of it times 4 (the number of times I have seen it). I don’t know; I have a strange feeling about this one. Furthermore, I welcome a surprise with my arms wide open (but like in the case of Amour I won’t be holding my breath though).

To conclude, in the series of boring (Lincoln), awkward, poorly directed and looooooooooooooooong (Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables), overly American (Argo and a Zero Dark Thirty disaster), superficial and flat (Life of Pi), Amour or Beasts would be such a refreshment. Considering what I said earlier about Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the one I would prefer to win (fingers crossed).

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Text written by Monika Ponjavic


[1] Affleck did the same thing in Argo, but his film is handled differently, it is less pretentious and more self reflexive, which sets them apart

[2] Artist (2011) and Amour (2012) are the only ones that come to mind, with the former actually being a silent film. Also, Babel (2006), an international film in which multiple languages were spoken from English over Arabic to Japanese.

[3] I have seen all films in the category of Best Foreign Language Film this year, that is, all but Canadian War Witch and I have no plans of seeing it but that is another story. Anyways, Kon-Tiki is a version of Life of Pi but in Norwegian and better; The Royal Affair lacks something and No is good but not as good as Amour. War Witch? I can’t say.

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